The Sunday Times today reports that the review panel on university funding chaired by Lord Browne is likely to recommend that “universities would be allowed to increase fees well above the inflation rate each year – possibly by as much as £1,000 – as they move towards a free market”. The report also suggests that “Leading research universities could charge students an estimated £7,000 a year while fees for science undergraduates could rise to £14,000”.
Those who value scholarship, scientific excellence, and equality of opportunity in higher education must now take all forms of peaceful political action to oppose this proposal that would be catastrophic for universities in the UK.
It is scarcely surprising that the review panel is recommending such a free market approach to universities:
- Responsibility for higher education currently rests with a government department called “The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills”, presided over by Lord Mandelson. The priorities of this Department are on the role of universities in supporting UK PLC and on developing business solutions, rather than on the value of universities in their own right.
- The review is led by Lord Browne, former Chief Executive of BP. Why, oh why, was someone who took his company to near disaster (look at the current crises facing BP), and who was one of the most highly paid executives in the UK, asked to lead such an important review? Surely there were scholars or scientists who understood the true value of universities, who could have done this better?
- Most UK university Vice Chancellors are so concerned with maintaining funding for their institutions that they have forgotten their most important role which is to provide scholarly vision and leadership. They have become co-conspirators in this move to a free market in higher education, where only the richest (or most corrupt) will be able to survive.
These factors combine to provide a recipe for disaster – all that the key actors in policy making can see is the need to generate more income to fund existing levels of student education at universities, and the only solution they can come up with is to raise fees, based on the ludicrous logic that higher education is a private good for which individuals should be willing to pay. I have previously commented at length on the flawed logic of this, and so will not repeat myself here.
However, three arguments seem to me to be unassailable:
- Universities are facing a funding crisis because of the mistaken belief that we need to have 50% of our young people gaining a university education. There is no proof that providing a university education (which is in any case becoming increasingly second-rate) for this number of people is good, either for them or for society at large. The easiest way to reduce costs is simply to reduce the number of places on offer at universities.
- Many students (although by no means all) waste their time at university. It is a lifestyle choice which is preferable to being unemployed. One of the reasons there are currently so many applications for university places is quite simply that it is tough to find a job during the economic downturn. Instead, let’s make gaining a university place more competitive, so that only those who are really committed to scholarship and scientific excellence gain a place.
- Rather than imposing sweeping cuts across all universities, it would make much more sense to close those that do not provide learning or research opportunities of a high enough standard. Why are we so unwilling to close entire universities? Businesses go bust and people are made unemployed. The same should happen to the least successful universities.
The Browne review is focusing on the wrong questions. It is trying to find ways to fund an over-bloated, self congratulatory, but in reality increasingly mediocre higher education sector. Instead, let’s take a knife to the sector, and cut out the rot before it infects us all. Let’s have a more streamlined, outstanding and successful university sector, where there is real competition amongst students to gain places that will give them a truly excellent education, rather than a dumbed-down, penny pinching, higher education environment where all that matters is getting large numbers of students through the door to make financial ends meet.
For those who believe that it is inevitable that students should pay fees to attend university, it is worth remembering that there are some enlightened countries, such as Finland, where people value universities so much that attendance remains free – even for students from overseas!